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A compelling Matt Damon can't save the problematic and clumsy 'Stillwater'

Playing a father trying to free his daughter from a prison in France, Damon does his best to save this clumsy misfire from Tom McCarthy.
Credit: Focus Features
Matt Damon stars as "Bill" in director Tom McCarthy's STILLWATER, a Focus Features release. Credit Jessica Forde / Focus Features

ST. LOUIS — Bill Baker (Matt Damon) looks like a man with real miles on his soul, too many for even a middle-aged fella like himself. From the moment we see him slinging chunks of someone's home after another storm rips through Oklahoma, one can tell there's more to this guy's story than a laid-off oil rig worker. 

For one, his daughter (Abigail Breslin) is in a jail in France for a crime she screams innocence for, even if the evidence says something else. A man made to fit in wherever with a quiet stoic pride to his American roots, he ventures off to Marseille to free his daughter once and for all. 

That's what the trailers for Tom McCarthy's "Stillwater" would lead you to believe is the meat of the story, but it's not. This is a tale of two stories jammed into one movie, and the results are uneven and problematic. 

However, the film does hold onto your attention. Once overseas, Bill befriends a single woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin) with a young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Before long, they are roommates, with Bill fixing things around the apartment building and slowly moving into the woman's life, picking her daughter up from school and fixing her up with some burgers and beans. And then he's off to see his daughter in jail, and then back to Virginie and Maya. They're lovely and the actresses in the roles will charm you (especially the little girl!), but it feels as though they are in a completely different movie. 

All this time, I kept thinking to myself... poor Bill. He's in over his head in unknown territory, refusing to stop looking into his daughter's case--with the side effects being a bruised up face or his daughter not believing in him. He's also dealing with the culture shock of being in an entirely different world in Europe, as opposed to the endless rebuilding back in the states that he's used to. 

Bill is running in circles for over two hours, and he just looks so sad and beaten up. Damon gives the role instant gravitas but as compelling as he can be in just about any performance, it's just not enough to push the clunky screenplay across the finish line and make this film worth recommending. 

The movie sure could have used a few chops in the editing bay, or perhaps just decide on one purpose. This is the script that feels like it had three minds attached to it, but each soul had something different to pack into the moral of the story. As an audience member, you get pulled in multiple directions with formulaic results in the road-much-traveled murder case aspect of the story, and then a lighthearted yet misplaced opposites attract romance family story. Neither is given sufficient enough time to become something worth chasing after, and a third act decision at a soccer game nearly ruins the movie. 

The scenes with Virginie and Maya work better and are more confident than the subplot involving Breslin. She's a capable actress and gets a bigger role here, but there's little to like about her character and her whole predicament is underdeveloped and poorly written. McCarthy never fully leans into that element of the drama, and it hurts the overall impact of the film. 

"Stillwater" is a drama masquerading as a thriller with misled romantic elements. Only if they had played the "Law and Order" theme whenever the more dramatic moments started to intensify, and then it could switch back to a loving mix of French and Americana tunes during the lighter moments. It's too episodic for a cinematic event.

Damon does everything in his acting wheelhouse to compel us to the end, but when we get there, the results are just disappointing and anti-climactic. A late rumination about how life looks much different in the Midwest than it does in Marseilles rings hollow, because the film wasted so much time on a whodunit case that could be read easily from a mile away.

I felt like McCarthy was really trying to go for something bigger here but couldn't find a way there, so he attached all the themes together to see if something powerful would stick. It didn't work, feeling forced and unnatural instead. 

"Stillwater" should have been better with the talent involved, proving once again that focus (or a lack thereof) can be a make-or-break factor for many films. 


Dan Buffa/@buffa82 on Twitter